Ah, the humble office plant. At first glance, upon entering a hectic workplace, you may not even notice it. These valiantly placed flourishes of greenery often fight for space amidst the hustle and bustle of generic chairs and desks; drowning in a sea of clacking keyboards and whirring photocopiers.
Yet, in many ways, they have the ability to transform a working environment like nothing else. For those of us required to visit the same mundane spaces daily, these links to the outside world can make a small but tangible difference. To be able to glance up from a humming screen and momentarily witness the inherent beauty of nature, the serenity of still life, is simply invaluable.
Polly Brown is a London-based artist and photographer who captured the role that office plants play in her first major published work: ‘Plants’. She gained access to some of the world’s most prestigious and meticulously presented companies, and their often less-than-glamorous offices…
Fascinated with the concept of liminal spaces since her time studying Fine Art at Central St. Martins, Brown’s work explores ideas around transience and permanence, the personal and the inanimate, natural and man-made environments. The stark reality and poignant, almost emotional, resonance of Plants encapsulates these trains of thought, and has since led to a number of commissions from the likes of the Frieze Art Fair and renowned fashion house Givenchy.
We caught up with Polly for an illuminating conversation that ran the whole gamut; from academic theorising to ‘nudey shoots’ at the Playboy offices…
What inspired your ‘Plants’ series, and how did it come about?
I wanted to make a project that reflected the difference between the day-to-day running of companies and the shiny iconic brands they often project. I was wandering around magazine offices looking at photocopiers and staplers and it all seemed so mundane compared to the glamour the magazines were beacons for. I was drawn to the pot plants in particular as I saw something of a human element within them. Not only did they reflect the day-to-day office, they also reflected the living, thriving workforce. Images of the plants seemed to be very honest - they are unassuming yet reflexive.
The plants you photograph are situated in the offices of some of the world’s most recognisable and luxurious brands. Did you find you could draw certain parallels between those brands and the plants that sat in their offices?
I found the brands themselves were the ones most worried about how parallels might be made between their plants and the brand! I just shot whichever ones I felt like at the time.
Often the plant chosen was a personal employee’s plant, not part of a colour scheme or corporate 'green' outlook.
I’ve seen mention elsewhere of how the plants in your images seem almost like substitutes for fashion models (fittingly so perhaps, given the nature of the work done in a lot of the offices), yet at the same time there’s a very spontaneous, natural (or naturalistic at least) feel to many of them. Did you set out to show the plants in a certain light (both literally and conceptually)?
I never set up the plants. I liked to just shoot them in situ, wherever they were naturally placed.
I guess the connection to fashion models, if there is one, is that the images are most definitely portraits of the plants: they are close and focused; the plant exudes a sort of personality, an almost human-like quality. I wanted to shoot them in this way, to pick them out as living amongst the inanimate office detritus.
Did you have a favourite plant that you photographed in the series? What was special about it in particular do you think?
I loved hearing the backstory to the plant. Quite often when I was shooting, people would explain where it came from - sometimes they were even named…
My favourite was the plant at Playboy. The employees told me all the plants in the office had originally been bought as props for sexy ‘nudey’ shoots, to cover the modesty of the models. I thought that was pretty funny.
Why do you think plants have become such a mainstay in offices - what is it about them that people like having around?
There has been a very conscious, corporate strive towards 'green' in the past decade, however the small desktop office plant has been a constant presence for way longer.
The presence of plants taps into a deep connection, the one that exists between humans and nature itself. They remind us of a fairly recent past when we were living and working in nature. In a way the plants reflect ourselves. It’s maybe the only thing that does in a world of swivel chairs, smartphones and photocopiers…
Do you have any plans to shoot plant life as it occurs in any other locations?
I’m very interested in how we involve and experience nature within a man-made environment.
Often I find myself taking the same picture of a tree when its roots break through pavement and tarmac.
I’m currently working on a project that is titled ‘Man Made Nature’, which again looks at our attempt to implant the natural back into our lives.
Do you send plants/flowers as gifts yourself? Is there anything you always look for or try to avoid in a bouquet?
I always gift a cactus.
What is your favourite flower?